• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
  • Archives

Am I Rough Enough

My client Justin Peacock published a terrific piece in today’s Daily Beast : “As literary fiction has become increasingly introverted, it has largely turned its back on plot, and in doing so it also turned its back on truly engaging with contemporary American life. The decline of the importance of plot—a resistance to the appeal of the sort of plotting that drives not just Dickens’ novels but, for that matter, the plays of Shakespeare or even ancient classics like the Iliad—leads inevitably to a failure of novels to engage with their culture…The novel is the only major storytelling form in our democratic culture where out-dated and counter-productive distinctions between high and low, between genre and literary, still exist. No one in their right mind would dismiss The Shield or The Wire’s (on which Price, Pelecanos and Lehane all worked, and of which Price is again openly acknowledged as the major literary inspiration) place as two of television’s greatest achievements because they are crime stories, anymore than a film critic would try to insist that Martin Scorsese is a second-tier filmmaker because so many of his movies are about organized crime. But the novel was always meant to be a popular medium, to be the realm of storytellers. By making itself too rarefied, the literary novel has deprived itself of the necessary oxygen of powerful plotting and engagement with society.”

If you have a moment, check out the whole piece. Agree? Disagree? Bite me.

Better yet, read Blind Man’s Alley this weekend. Don’t trust me, check this out.

35 Responses

  1. I agree. I hate the litfic genre almost as much as I despise scifi, romance, fantasy, etc. Formulaic plotting and second rate writing is simply unacceptable to me. But so is the prettily written, navel gazing product of the creative writing and MFA programs, the obscurantist prose of academics who try to write philosophy as fiction and those who simply haven’t the talent and skills needed to create true literature. To me, the best writer working today is Richard Powers, who has had the whole kit and kaboodle since he wrote his first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. He turns out a novel every two or three years, and while not uniformly excellent, they are all well above the high water mark of mainstream literary fiction.

  2. I agree that any novel that “[turns] its back on plot” likely turns its back on a chance to engage the reader, but I don’t agree that literary fiction has in some sweeping & total way turned its back on plot. (“The decline of the importance of plot …” — I’d like to see some proof of this phenomenon. If anything, there’s been, to my mind, a rise in the importance of plot / high concept / hack-ish fiction, while every day it gets harder and harder to publish a quiet literary novel.)

    I like Nathan Bransford’s definition of literary fiction as fiction in which the plot takes place below the surface. The plot may not, for example, involve car chases or rare diseases or detectives or vampires; more often it involves emotions, the revelation of character, etc. Bransford cites Gilead as a very literary novel; if you summarize the plot it may not sound so impressive — but almost anyone who’s read Gilead can attest to the fact that it is NOT “deprived … of the necessary oxygen of powerful plotting and engagement with society.” Please.

    I hope there will always be quiet, compelling novels to read, alongside “television’s greatest achievements,” because I am compelled and engaged by stories that speak to or illuminate my experience of the world (I know this isn’t the case for everyone), and my experience of the world is not a high-speed chase or some insane courtroom drama.

    “Too rarefied” … tch. People get so offended by the high/low art distinction. As if it doesn’t exist, or as if anyone could demolish it. As if there might not, in fact, be “higher” things in the world … higher concepts, “nobler” themes. As if we should be able to consider books like Twilight and books like Anna Karenina together … as if in any world they could ever even be compared. I can’t understand anyone who’d take a swing at lit fiction like this.

    • (In addition I find it interesting that the author cites no specific examples of the “sterile” literary fiction he’s taking a shot at, besides a vague allusion to the NYer’s 20 under 40 … which has been so beaten down at this point, it seems pointless to take yet another shot at it. Wanting to uphold and validate “crime novels” is one thing, and is fine. But trying to do so at the expense of literary fiction? I don’t know. I see no need to step on lit fiction to wave the flag for crime fiction. Each have their merits.)

  3. Fuckin’ A! Jesus Christ, I’ve been listening to the wrong literary losers! I knew I was right! I knew it! Story is everything! Story! Story! God damn it, that’s what I get for going to class. Mother fuckers.

  4. I’m sorry. I forgot to throw in half-witted knee-jerk wanna-be Freudian interventionist idiots that think writing is about revealing your pathetic inner-life! It’s about writing a story that people will enjoy! Is that too much to get your mind around? If I ever, in this world, get a book printed, don’t, I swear to god, don’t look for an instruction manual of the soul. If you do, I will call the book store that you bought the book from and find out where you live and do you the fucking favor of putting you out of your misery! It’s a story!

    • It’s weird that you’re incapable of realizing that some people want stories of one sort and other people want stories of another sort (closed mind?). Obviously you like a high concept novel. Why is it so hard to believe that there are people, like myself, who DO want to read about revelation of inner life? As in Franny & Zooey (Salinger), as in The Professor’s House (Cather), as in Elizabeth Costello (Coetzee)? And why is it that you can’t see that the best novels contain BOTH — high concept plot elements AND revelation of character, as in The End of the Affair (Greene), Under the Volcano (Lowry), and The Long Goodbye (Chandler)?

      • My sentiments exactly. And very good examples.

      • Define weird, and then we might have a decent conversation. We might even be able to inject humor into out conversation so we can have a decent laugh at ourselves, which I must profess is sorely lacking in much of the discourse regarding those ink blots called written language. Give me a roller-coaster, the uncanny, and that definition I have forgotten which says all the pleasure is in your head for for a short time, any day.

  5. I agree, but Aristotle said it better. Every writer, MFA or not, genre writer or literary…whatver – a hell of a good book I now call it. To wit:

    Plot is the “first principle,” the most important feature of tragedy. Aristotle defines plot as “the arrangement of the incidents”: i.e., not the story itself but the way the incidents are presented to the audience, the structure of the play. According to Aristotle, tragedies where the outcome depends on a tightly constructed cause-and-effect chain of actions are superior to those that depend primarily on the character and personality of the protagonist. Plots that meet this criterion will have the following qualities (context). See Freytag’s Triangle for a diagram that illustrates Aristotle’s ideal plot structure, and Plot of Oedipus the King for an application of this diagram to Sophocles’ play.

    Read the entire thing if you want to wrtier: Aristotle’s The Poetics – don’t put it off, it’s on the internet- google, yahoo, whatever. free and same adise you get with a $$$$ MFA program

  6. Yes, but. Movies can do plot, teevee and theater do plot…the one thing novels can do that they CAN’T is the Inner Life.

    Nothing more boring than a novel that’s just a movie on paper. Give me Philip Roth over some Aristotelian plot chain any day.

  7. Didactic fiction is not fun or profound. I am suspecious when anyone demands social consciousness along with a written road wide enough for all of us to trod down.

  8. Not really a reader of ‘literary’ fiction. I prefer genre fiction and yes, it damn well better have a plot. What sticks in my craw is that so much genre fiction is every bit as well written and profound as the ballyhooed literary novels of Franzen, Foer, Lethem and that crowd. Mr. Peacock mentions Lehane, Pelecanos and Price in referencing the TV series, The Wire for which they contributed scripts to what is considered one of the best series ever . But it is their novels that also deserve just as much consideration as the three young literary turks mentioned above. I’d rather read a well-written, beautifully plotted and exciting crime novel any day of the week and twice on Sunday to some navel-gazing highbrow little finger extended precious literary tome. To those precious and plotless literary works I raise a different digit.

  9. I don’t read much literary fiction for the reasons he talks about. I’m tired of post-modernism, magical realism, etc etc. But I don’t like crime fiction either–for the most part. I like novels with social commentary–like THE IMPERFECTIONISTS by Tom Rachman. Not sure if that novel is considered literary fiction or not. He’s right though–most of these novels exist in a sort of airless literary vacuum, which is why I’m not interested….I was, back in my post-English major days, but not anymore.

  10. It was an interesting article and I’m going to read it again. One first impression is the idea that you write to engage with your culture. Certainly you have to engage the readers in some way if you want them to read. But what if the culture you’re addressing is one you believe is morally, spiritually, and/or socially bankrupt? And, added to that belief, you think the only way change takes place is on an individual level.

    I looked at the 20 under 40. One that popped out at me was Joshua Ferris. The unnamed, his latest, has a plot about a man who can’t stop walking. Boring? Unengaging? No plot whatsoever? I couldn’t put it down. I put in it the group with Gilead– brilliant.

    The crimes of the heart are much more appealing to me. Obviously we all have our preferences. Still, an interesting and thought-provoking article and I’ll read Blind Man’s Alley just to prove to myself I have an open mind.

    • “One first impression is the idea that you write to engage with your culture. Certainly you have to engage the readers in some way if you want them to read. But what if the culture you’re addressing is one you believe is morally, spiritually, and/or socially bankrupt?”

      — I love that. So true. Who is this guy to come out and say that authors must engage contemporary culture on its terms — or be forgotten? And is culture strictly pop culture (TV, new media, capitalistic trends) — or is it something deeper, something more personal, about psyches and emotional landscapes? He cites works like The Iliad and Shakespeare’s plays as well-plotted (therefore, I guess, culturally engaging) pieces. But what do we remember about The Iliad? I personally don’t remember the play-by-play action; I always remember the more timeless themes — the father/son relationships, the grief of loss, notions of weakness, heroism, strength, flaws. And Shakespeare’s plays? Engagement with social themes/culture made them popular in their day, but engagement with timeless themes (unrequited love, jealousy, madness, revenge, racism, hubris) make them popular still.

      The author of the article tries to conflate literary fiction with postmodernism, which is dead. I can’t believe anyone is even talking about it anymore — we hardly have living pomo writers (Pynchon?) (It’s like he wants to take a stab at Foster-Wallace but doesn’t have the guts.) And I am a fan of lit fic, but obviously not a postmodern fan — you’ll never hear pomo proponents say “timeless themes.”

      I think Mr. Peacock wants to write some literary criticism, but needs a little schooling to ground his arguments …

  11. This made me laugh and it’s somewhat on topic. And I’m not shilling for a friend–I don’t know this guy at all. http://tinyurl.com/2bxpoyn

    • “The American sheeple will follow Mr. Anti-Intellectualism around anywhere…” ❤

      • One of the things that made me laugh out loud (and also think of you, petty) was: “I have strong opinions about Tao Lin and I want to voice them!” the internet said.

      • Ha! I can’t believe Salon profiled him. A little eye rolling. Ironically there’s some overlap here — “Subsidiary rights inquiries can be directed to Erin Hosier of Dunow, Carlson & Lerner at …” <– muumuu house. I refuse to capitalize.

  12. I mentioned this before, but “Propping Up Literary Fiction Sales” on “Read It and Weep” speaks to the same issue with a little more irreverence.
    http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/members/billstephens .

  13. Thanks for the head-up, and the link. I read the whole piece (slow day at the office). While he focuses on crime novels, his larger point seems to be that good writing–good story-telling–engages with its audience, whether it’s a story about rainbows and unicorns or a story about crack-whores and assistant district attorneys. That’s the way it’s been since people started telling each other stories.

    The novel does things that no other form of story-telling can do. Short stories, poems, songs, histories, plays, movies, TV shows, they all do best those things that are peculiar to their own forms, and all of them are just as capable as the novel is of being powerful vehicles for gripping stories (“Darkness on the Edge of Town” gets me every time). All of them, as everyone here knows, are capable of being cringingly mediocre examples of wasted time and effort, bringing to mind the flippant veracity of Sturgeon’s Law: “Ninety percent of everything is trash.” But when they’re good, well-told stories of whatever form, they provide a human sustenance not to be obtained from any other source.

    (Whew! As for me, I think I need a drink.)

  14. It was an interesting piece but it irritated me that he ignored great writers who are writing novels with social commentary such as Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, Dany Senna, winners of Kingsolver’s Bellwether prize, etc.

  15. I agree with some other folks that a) his critique would carry a lot more weight if he gave even a single example of the “literary” fiction he has a beef with (are, say, Lorrie Moore, Junot Diaz, George Saunders, Aleksandr Hemon, Denis Johnson, Marilynne Robinson, Edward P. Jones, etc., etc., etc. not engaging with American culture?!?), and b) the sense of inner life that–sorry to use the ugly word but here goes–“literary” fiction can provide is a different thing than finding out who killed who. And, hey, with Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult’s recent Franzenfreude in mind, any women writers out there in the world (aside from a couple mentioned in passing)?

    That all said, I do agree that crime is (like always) one of the most fertile parts of fiction. One funny thing: I love Richard Price to death, but Lush Life was actually pretty terribly plotted and was fantastic for literary qualities like voice, observation, and, yes, inner life.

  16. Lev Grossman sounds similar notes in Good Books Don’t Have to be Hard, which is worth reading in general, but is especially worth reading in tandem with this.

    I think this idea of airless literary novels has evolved in tandem with agent desire for what I often see referred to as “upmarket” or “book club” books, which I basically read as “literary enough to be interesting, but also with a plot.”

  17. Hmmm. Interesting. I prefer literary fiction, though have read Evanovich and sheepishly admit to gobbling down all of the Sookie Stackhouse/Harris novels in four days.

    But my favorite reading usually means I’m left pondering things, asking myself questions and the work itself required something of me. Some thought…

    That’s why, unless I need distraction and don’t want to have to invest anything in what I’m reading, I prefer literary fiction. But I prefer character-driven, over plot driven. I am not averse to a long literary novel that gets into the head of a character and is slow moving, in the same way that I prefer documentaries and indie films over sitcoms.

    As with everything, it’s a personal preference thing. I think plot is important, but I don’t like plot-driven stuff if the character development suffers for it.

    Hey–we were searching for a definition of literary fiction– RE: Plot– on my workshop site and someone posted this:

    …the literary plot – in which, no matter whether we start from the happy or unhappy fork, proceeding backwards we arrive inevitably at the question, where we stop to wail. …In short, the “literary plot” is one that does not hinge upon decision, but fate; in it, the critical event takes place at the beginning of the story rather than at the end. What follows from that event is inevitable; often tragedy. (This coincides with the classical Greek notion of tragedy, which is that such events are fated and inexorable).

    This seemed to apply to a couple of literary fiction books I’d recently read:

    The Story of Edgar Sawtell
    Eden, by Olympia Vernon

    *agree, disagree, (no biting, thanks!)*

  18. All together now! — You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy, when skies are gray, you’ll never know how much I love you, please don’t take my sunshine away — Chorus, people, chorus!

    • I thought the chorus was never never never never be…. maybe chorus has a different meaning depending on the genre

      • The chorus to what? Have you been reading those vampire books again? That is a classic American folk song. Classic as it goes these days. It speaks volumes to everything from the weather to literature. Kids these days, I tell ya.

  19. Has the great bulk of literary fiction (and poetry, for that matter) become like Abstract Expressionism was fifty years ago, “where meanings were personal and arcane” (Danto in Warhol), when the visual arts were on the brink of the Pop Art explosion? Is there an analogous explosion due, or even taking place, now in the literary arts? Are the memoir and creative nonfiction immanentizations of this?

    • Thanks Tetman, you just saved me thousands of dollars in a short little blog. I am so tired of reinventing the wheel. Since none of us can explain our existence, lest we be rightly called con-men, what you described is very much happening, and always should. Nice! Well put! Thank You! And thank god for the dictionary!

  20. It’s storytelling. It has taken me many years to learn that. More than the story on your mind? Hang it onto, or weave it into, the story. The levels of volume you apply, and the tools you choose, are matters of judgment and risk. What’s your mix? The flavor that comes out is you, the writer.

  21. “Gone With The Wind”!
    “Bridget Jones’ Diary”!
    (Give Peace a chance!)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: